The first time the Wah Days brought lychees to a fruit market in Cairns, some local residents mistook them for apples.
“My grandmother said they just tried to eat the whole lot, with the sharp skin still on,” Lawrence Wah Day recounts with a laugh. Lychees were native to China and possibly one of “the first exotic fruit that people in Cairns had seen”.
Like their lychees, the Wah Days became North Queensland icons. That’s largely because of Lawrence’s dad, George.
Before he’d even turned 10, George was working in the family business. By 21, he became the first member of the Wah Day family to own a sugarcane farm.
Not that he turned his back on lychees. In fact, George would literally guard the prized crop around the clock. When flying foxes took a liking to the fruit, George would get up every two hours throughout the night to scare them off with a loud noise. Neighbours say he was as tough as nails.
His determination saw him become a pioneer of the lychee industry nationally, sending the first shipment to Sydney in 1953.
His interstate sales soon extended to prawns, which the family also started farming.
Before his death last year at the age of 91, George said growing things was just what the Wah Days did. The family has now been farming the eastern side of Trinity Inlet for more than 100 years.
Preserving Chinese history
But George Wah Day’s contribution to North Queensland extends well beyond what we eat.
Lawrence says his dad felt a serious obligation to document the stories of other migrant families.
He spent hours doing interviews with a PhD student for her research about early Chinese settlement in the area.
“[That thesis] must have been at least 1,000 odd pages,” says Lawrence.
George also took part in a national oral history project to record the lived experiences of Chinese people in post-war Australia and supplied his old family photos to the Cairns Historical Society.
“He thought it was important to acknowledge the contributions Chinese people had made in the far north,” says Lawrence. “It wasn’t just the gold mining. It was the agriculture. It was the merchants … It was the people of Chinese descent who had served Australia during WWII.
“The first taxi in Cairns was operated by a Chinese guy.”
A community man
Many of those who knew George describe him the same way: ‘a proud Aussie’.
“He did get involved in a lot of stuff,” says his younger brother, William. “George spent over 20 years in the Citizen Military Force [now known as the Australian Army Reserve] … and I think for a while, he was more or less running the show in Cairns.”
Although a first-generation Australian, George was equally as proud of his Chinese heritage. His father had migrated to Australia from Guangzhou in 1894.
As a lifelong member of the Cairns & District Chinese Association (CADCAI), and its vice-president for many years, George was a strong advocate for preserving cultural traditions and celebrations—not only within the community, but also at home.
“We always observed Chinese New Year,” says Lawrence. “No knives, no scissors, no washing hair, no cleaning the house … and vegetarian meals throughout the day.”
“[On Tomb Sweeping Day], we went out to my grandmother and grandfather’s graves and lit incense and left food and money for them.”
George always ate with chopsticks and insisted on having rice with all three meals.
Former CADCAI president, Ken Wong, says George wanted to ensure younger generations of Australian-born Chinese people didn’t forget their roots.
When CADCAI needed funds to house Chinese artefacts from the run-down Lit Sung Goong temple in Cairns, George didn’t hesitate to open his wallet.
“We were doing a lot of fundraising [for a new building],” says Ken. “And straight away, he said, ‘I’ll donate $10,000.’”
Legacy as a local legend
George Wah Day’s death hit Cairns hard. Long-time local MP Warren Entsch noted, “they don’t get more local than the Wah Day family”.
The family’s farms still operate. Even in his 80s, George’s brother William manages the properties seven days a week.
Lawrence chose a separate career path but says his dad’s legacy will live on: “At times he did stretch himself thin, but he put himself out there for the community and … there wasn’t anything that he wouldn’t do for us kids.”
“If people asked for help, he’d give help. He’ll be remembered for his generosity.”